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give a little time to me (or burn this out)

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He comes here by whatever way he can,
not too late, not too soon.

He sits, waiting. He doesn’t know   
why he should have such a patience.

He sits at a table, on a chair.
He is comfortable, sitting there.

No one else in this room,
no others, no expectations,   
no sounds.

Had he walked another way,
would he be here, like they say.

 

– – After Frost, Robert Creeley

 

x

 

It’s maddening to watch the ceiling fan whir. There’s a click every minute or so, something in the motors probably, interrupting the smooth glide of its blades, interrupting everything and nothing at all. Moonlight floods the room, painting the walls and ceiling a bleak shade of gray. Renjun’s counted up to fifty-six now, a heap of metaphorical clicks piled up in the center of his mind. It doesn’t tell him much, it doesn’t tell him anything good. All it does is remind him that it’s probably already half past three in the morning, and he’s still in bed alone.

The right side of the bed is cold and empty, easily taunting him with an absence, he thinks. He slides a hand against the cool sheets, smooth and unwrinkled, a clear reflection of how it hasn’t been slept in in a while. He tugs on the comforter, pulling it up to his chin, trying to hug himself warm, trying to fill the cracks.

He tries not to think about how the chill seems to be emanating from his very core, not the dead of winter’s night.

The ring on his necklace is heavy against his chest; it itches.

His phone lies uselessly on the bedside table. There’s no need to reach for it – it hasn’t buzzed all night. Or evening, for the matter.

Renjun gets to seventy-four.

The door to the apartment is pushed opened, then slid shut quietly. There’s a rustle of scarves and jackets, and the sound of a backpack hitting the ground with a soft thud. Cabinets open and close, so does the door to their refrigerator, signaling a midnight hunt for food. Renjun twists and his back cracks defiantly, stiff from how still he’d been lying. He listens attentively, closing his eyes when the kitchen tap stops running.

The foil to a packet of biscuits is ripped open. Munch, munch, munch.

Renjun makes a mental note to stock their pantry up tomorrow.

It’s strange. Something is, but he doesn’t know what. A feeling, maybe. As if something terrible has happened. Or is happening. Might happen. It grips his chest tight, and it’s getting harder to breathe, harder to pull himself back to reality. He tries to fight it, but without knowing what, Renjun thinks he might have no choice to surrender to it – whatever it is.

He feels like his world is all wrong. As if everything’s two inches from where they’re supposed to be and Renjun’s missing everything he’s reaching for. They slip through his fingers, and he tries to catch them a second time, but he misses by a hair – it shatters. It reverberates in his chest, and the grip is lost. Renjun can breathe easy now, but now – now it’s just hollow. And cold.

Renjun doesn’t understand it.

Jeno enters the room.

Jeno tries his best to be quiet, Renjun knows. He really does try to be, because he doesn’t want to wake Renjun, doesn’t want to when Renjun’s been clocking extra hours at the art exhibition lately. It’s just unfortunate for them both that Jeno has no sense of balance and virtually no concept of spatial awareness. His foot thunks against their bedroom door, one Renjun’d left wide open, and he whines a soft ow, only to compose himself with a deep breath.

Renjun hears footsteps hobble to their en suite, and the door is shut. The shower starts to run, and Jeno is shuffling around the bathroom, probably struggling to get his jeans off. They land in the hamper, Renjun hears, and Jeno is padding around the bathroom again. He bumps into the glass door of their shower stall, and the sound of their shampoo bottle hitting wet tiles reverberates. A grievous sigh follows.

So much for being quiet.

The number restarts at zero, because Renjun loses count.

At twelve clicks, the right side of the bed dips. Renjun closes his eyes again. Jeno slides under the comforter and wiggles close, clearly assuming the racket he made in the bathroom had already woken Renjun up. He throws a leg over Renjun’s, cold and still a little wet, pressing his nose to the back of Renjun’s neck, breathing in deeply.

It’s a ritual of theirs – sleeping together all tangled up like this. After moving out of the freshmen dorms they’d shared with Donghyuck and Jaemin, they’d decided to rent a one-bedroom apartment big enough to fit them both, but small enough to make sure their wallets didn’t completely bleed out. With one room to share, the idea of sleeping together on a queen bed was simply exciting to them both (just like adults do, they supposed). It’d then been a little over two years into their relationship, and Renjun’d thought sharing an apartment and bed was scary, but a step he’d wanted to take.

Small fights followed their decision to share a bed – over blanket hogging and fitful kicking (Renjun’s foot to Jeno’s shoulder, Jeno’s arm to Renjun’s face), and there were a handful of nights they’d both gone to bed upset. It was even harder without their own rooms to hide out in, and Renjun hated nights like those the most. Hated the way it would make his gut coil, hated the way they’d have a cold war over dinner, hated the way the silence would eat at him mercilessly. Jeno would sleep so close to the edge of the mattress (out of reach) that he’d be a mere hair away from rolling right off, and Renjun would tug him by the back of his shirt to hug the petulant boy to sleep, no matter the person at fault.

It’s after two weeks of unavoidable complaints (“You kicked me again last night, Jun!”) and heated exchanges (“Well, you were on my side of the bed!”) did they figure the best way to sleep – together. Jeno holds Renjun down and Renjun hugs Jeno close, clinging onto the arm curled around his waist, letting Jeno latch onto him.

“Sorry,” he whispers, breath tickling Renjun, making him squirm. He feels Jeno press a kiss to his neck, eliciting a hot flush to hurry across his shoulders and down his back. A breath, “Training ended late and dinner ran long; the team wanted to have dinner together with Coach Yoon to celebrate his last term with us.”

Renjun clears his throat, quiet to his own ears, “That’s okay.” Caving in, his hands find Jeno’s under the covers to lace their fingers together. He scoots backwards, snuggling close to Jeno’s chest, sighing when the comforting warmth replaces the ice in his lungs. “Mm.”

Jeno presses another kiss to Renjun’s neck, just a little under his ear. “Did you wait up for me?”

Renjun’s heart stutters, but he shouldn’t be all that surprised, not when Jeno knows him better than he does himself. He doesn’t lie, because Jeno would find out anyway, “Yes.”

“Sorry,” Jeno hums, squeezing Renjun once. Then again, “I should have called.”

The air stills.

On the tip of his tongue, you never call. Renjun ignores it, “Are you busy tomorrow?”

“No,” says Jeno immediately. “Are you?”

Renjun unsticks himself from Jeno in favor of turning to have his face in Jeno’s chest instead. His arms tuck between them, Jeno’s heart beating steadily against his palm.

“I have tomorrow off,” Renjun says. Even though the hours are long at the art exhibit, he appreciated the flexibility with regards to days off. “And I work the next two days after tomorrow.”

“Let’s go on a date. Tomorrow.”

Renjun’s heart surges warmth and honey. With Renjun’s holiday job and Jeno’s extra shifts at the coffeehouse and extra winter trainings, together time has been scarce between them both over the past months. Jeno had long trainings and weekend trips, meaning a lot of cold nights for Renjun. He knows it’s not out of the norm – Jeno always runs out of time quick when it’s track season, and Renjun knows better than to get mopey over seeing Jeno less.

He knows it, yes.

Jeno whispers, “I miss you.”

Renjun breathes deep – and under their coconut body wash, his mind registers the smell of alcohol on Jeno’s skin. It doesn’t bother Renjun, doesn’t set off any alarms; Jeno doesn’t drink during track seasons.

It’s very mildly… disconcerting, that’s all. He knows something like this should never bother him, but it does. The smallest things are pushing his buttons and Renjun hates it. He trusts Jeno. He doesn’t ever want to doubt him.

Time together will help.

All he wants is some time together.

“Me too,” he hums. “Where are you taking me?”

Jeno knocks his chin to Renjun’s crown, “Is it my turn to decide?”

Renjun closes his eyes, “I picked a movie the last time.”

“Right,” Jeno says shortly.

“You don’t remember?”

“I do.” Jeno pauses, “I just remember it being really boring.”

Renjun kicks him under the comforter, “Let’s see how well you do tomorrow then.”

“I’m going to knock your socks off, that’s how well I’m going to do..”

Renjun doesn’t say more, and Jeno doesn’t press for more. He hugs Renjun tight again, grip loosening only when he falls asleep first, nose in Renjun’s hair.

Renjun counts to twenty-eight, and he falls asleep too.

Easy.

 

x

 

“This isn’t a date,” Renjun argues. He dodges a few wind chimes and a strings of fairy lights dotting the stalls. Someone bumps into him, shopping bags poking him all over, and Jeno pulls him close, practically hugging him as they worm their way through the crowd.

Jeno laughs in his ear, bright and breathless, “Too bad grouchy-pants, I got to pick the place.”

The city’s annual Christmas market is truly the worst place to be when it’s two weeks from the big holiday. People are rushing around with bags of gifts and decorations, everyone seems to be in their own little world, and no one seems to care for such a thing as personal space (or manners).

The town square is lit up in red and green and white, with fir and evergreen lining the narrow paths. It smells like gingerbread and popcorn and turkey leg and hot chocolate and melted cheese all at once, which would be really unappetizing if it didn’t smell completely decadent all mixed up together.

And, as much as Renjun hated the pushing and shoving and the fact that half the town’s population seemed to be right here in this very market – he quite enjoyed it. He quite liked the smell and sound and sight of Christmas, he liked the little trinkets, the delicious food, the sound of caroling. It’s the little push he needed to get into the holiday spirit.

Really – he’d spend a day with Jeno anywhere.

“This is you dragging me along to your day of Christmas shopping,” Renjun chides, rolling his eyes at the way Jeno’s steering him towards yet another trinket store. “Does this even – ah!” He yelps, embarrassingly loud, when Jeno tugs his scarf away to press a kiss to his neck, “Hey!”

“Don’t pretend that you aren’t having fun,” Jeno scoffs. He grins at Renjun’s scandalized expression, “You’ve had a hot chocolate and half of mine, two churros and you bought a pair of Christmas themed ear muffs.”

Renjun scowls, a hand flying up to touch the pair of forest green ear muffs with reindeers knitted in red. “You said they were cute!”

“No,” Jeno twines their fingers together. He leans close, a white puff of air snaking between them when he laughs, “I said you were cute.”

“Sap,” Renjun snorts. He takes the advantage of the distance between them and kisses Jeno anyway, toes curling when Jeno smiles into it, tasting like sweet chocolate.

Jeno breaks the kiss with another laugh, dragging Renjun into the relatively warmer trinket store. He holds onto Renjun as he studies the displays, eyes avidly searching for a Donghyuck-worthy gift. Renjun huddles close to Jeno’s right as he decides on three pairs of sterling silver earrings from the brand’s latest collection, paying for them and having them gift-wrapped quickly.

“Do you think he’ll like these?” Jeno asks, leading them back out into the crowd.

“Yes,” Renjun answers honestly. Donghyuck has always looked good in silver. “Though, he’ll tell you if he doesn’t.”

Jeno hims thoughtfully, “I should keep the receipt then.”

“Yeah.” Renjun laughs, “Yeah, you should.”

It’s a feat, really, mapping their way from store to store to find the perfect gifts. Renjun’s vision’s a blur, and he follows Jeno blindly through the crowd, stopping whenever Jeno wanted to. They manage to pick out a few gifts together – a wireless phone charger for Minhyung, a personalized planner for Jaemin, a rabbit-shaped scent diffuser for Jeno’s mother, and a handsome leather wallet for Jeno’s father.

By the end of it all, Renjun’s legs were screaming for a break.

“I love you,” he groans, clinging onto Jeno as they move along to yet another shop. “But please tell me that we’re going home soon.”

Jeno kisses him on the cheek, and Renjun flushes at how much it appeases him. “I just have to get a couple of things for my teammates.”

“Oh?” Renjun blinks. “I thought you’d already got them chocolates the last time we went to the mall? From Godiva?”

“Yeah,” Jeno nods twice, legs moving on autopilot when his eyes spot an accessory store. As if on instinct, he grabs onto Renjun, explaining as they go, “We have a couple of new members this season, so I just wanted to get them something small. Like a welcome gift of sorts.”

“Oh,” Renjun hobbles along, once again thankful for his petite frame when he squeezes past two shoppers while trying to keep up with Jeno. His eyes are greeted by the warm light of the stall Jeno steps into – lines of hair ties, head bands and hair accessories on the walls and racks.

Berets, clips, scarves.

Floral printed, checkered, polka-dotted.

Suede, satin, fur.

Oh.

It shatters. The world shifts.

Click. Click. Click.

The toe of Renjun’s shoe catches on the raised ledge, and Jeno catches him before his face can greet the ground with a friendly smack.

“Careful,” Jeno says, holding on to him by the hand. He tucks their hands into his coat pocket, having Renjun as close as possible as his eyes scan the walls covered in hair accessories. “I don’t know what to get,” he sighs.

Renjun swallows, feeling sick. He fights it. “What do they like?”

“‘Dunno,” Jeno shrugs. It eases up a little, “I don’t really know them.”

“Then why are you buying them gifts?”

Jeno turns to him, and Renjun bites on his lip. He didn’t mean for it to comes out so… coldly. Jeno can buy gifts for anyone he wanted to buy gifts for. Renjun doesn’t care. He doesn’t.

“Is this – “ Jeno gives their hands a squeeze. Renjun doesn’t know how to not read into it. Tersely, “They’re just teammates.”

“I know,” Renjun smiles. He goes on his tiptoes to kiss Jeno chastely. Whatever that’s trying to get to him, Renjun won’t allow for it, “How many of them are there?”

Renjun fears his thoughts are too easy to read; Jeno stares at him for a long while before answering, “Three.” He picks a black band off its hook, “Maybe I should just get three of these.”

Renjun stares at him incredulously, “What?”

Jeno raises a brow, “What?”

“Girls don’t want just one black hair tie,” Renjun deadpans. He briefly questions the tightness of his gut. “Have you never bought presents for a girl?”

The corner of Jeno’s lip pulls down into a skewed frown, “I once bought my cousin a headband. She was twelve.”

“You’re a nerd,” Renjun snorts. He picks out three sets of different colored satin scrunchies and other trinkets, piling them in the little plastic basket in Jeno’s hand. Without thinking, Renjun adds, “Maybe you really do need a little practice.”

Ah.

The look Jeno gives him is piercing, “Practice?”

“Nothing,” Renjun says. But he knows he can’t take it back now. Jeno’s hand is cold against his, “Nothing.”

Jeno clears his throat. “Well I’ve never had to shop for hair accessories,” he defends, not addressing the comment entirely.  He looks pointedly at Renjun, “You don’t have long hair.”

The moment passes.

“I don’t, thank you for noticing,” Renjun says dryly, grinning when Jeno makes a defeated groan. The air between them drops anyway. He lets Jeno pay for the items and have them gift-wrapped too, and they leave with three beige colored bags on Jeno’s arm.

He leads them out of the marketplace, taking in a deep breath of fresh air now that they’re not in a crowd of Christmas shoppers. They take the long way out of the area, stumbling onto an empty curve of the park’s path.

It’s so quiet. Renjun’s ears registers every crunch his boots make against the snow, his eyes water at the biting wind, his lips throb dully when his teeth sink in.

Click. Click.

“You’re not practice,” Jeno says, strained. His eyes are trained forward. The silence between them stretches almost painfully at the mention of their little trial run. Renjun says nothing but hopes Jeno doesn’t question more. Jeno is quiet at first, “Do you still think that?”

It’s been two years. “No.” Renjun takes it out on a particularly hard piece of snow. Something edges him to add, “Not anymore.”

Jeno stops, and Renjun is tugged backwards, hand still in Jeno’s pocket. He turns around to meet Jeno’s hardened gaze, “You’re not.”

It’s back.

Renjun tries to reach for it, whatever it is, floating in his heart. Taunting him, “But I was.” He watches Jeno’s expression twist into one he doesn’t want to see. Guilty, Renjun amends, “At least, for a while I was.”

Jeno shakes his head, “You were never practice.”

“Don’t  – ”

“Why did you say that?” Jeno questions, terrifyingly loud now that there aren’t the sounds of Christmas drowning everything out. He takes their hands out of his pocket to stare at the ring on his finger; the ring that matched the one looped around Renjun’s neck. “What did you mean?”

“Jeno,” Renjun says immediately. His heart speeds up, and he misses it again. It threatens to slip through his fingers, “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“You did,” Jeno shakes his head. He pulls his hand from Renjun’s, “You wouldn’t say it just like that.” A pause, “You’re keeping something from me.”

Renjun stops him, “I’m not.”

“Then why?”

“I didn’t – ” Renjun stammers. He pulls Jeno in for a hug, ignoring the bags jabbing into his torso. Their first date in weeks and he’s managed to spoil it. Fantastic. “It was just a bad joke, okay? I wasn’t thinking – ”

“We agreed we wouldn’t bring it up again,” Jeno says, sadness lacing his voice. His voice is muffled by Renjun’s shoulder. Renjun hugs him tighter, pained at the way Jeno’s arms stay by his side. “We said that it was in the past.”

“I know, Jeno,” Renjun whispers. His ear muffs fall off, but neither of them bother with it. He squeezes his eyes shut, willing his emotions away. “I know, I promise. I promise.”

“I said I was sorry,” Jeno mumbles, finally lifting his arms. His fingers dig into Renjun’s parka, “I’m sorry.”

Sorry for playing with you even though I didn’t mean to, sorry for pushing you away when I shouldn’t have, sorry for not noticing your feelings sooner – Renjun’s heard it all before. He’s heard it once and he never wants to hear it ever again. I’m sorry, I’m still sorry.

“Stop it.” Renjun pulls back to kiss Jeno proper. He doesn’t let Jeno go, doesn’t let Jeno think for another second. Tears fight their way free but he doesn’t let Jeno see them, hiding his face away with his chin hooked over Jeno’s shoulder. “Please just stop it, alright?”

“Have you been thinking about this?”

Renjun clings, “No.”

Lies.

Jeno tucks his face into the crook of Renjun’s neck and shoulder, “I can tell when something’s bothering you.”

“Nothing’s bothering me,” Renjun says. His voice is weak, even to his own ears. “I’m fine.”

Jeno nods slowly, trusting, sinking into Renjun’s hold, “I love you.”

“I love you,” Renjun breathes. He holds on tight, stumbling under Jeno’s weight, “I just want to go home now. I – just want to be with you.”

Jeno mumbles, “We’re okay, right?”

“Yeah.” Renjun’s heart shrinks, “Yeah, we’re okay.”

“Okay,” Jeno sniffs, loosening his grip on Renjun. He links their hands together again, dragging them both forward to grab Renjun’s fallen ear muffs, “Then let’s go home.”

And so they do, quietly and hurriedly, through the snow and thinning crowd. Their apartment isn’t too far from the subway station, but Renjun hangs tight onto Jeno the entire way home, not really paying attention to where they’re going, just trusting Jeno to bring him home.

They kick their shoes free of snow before crossing the threshold, helping each other out of their coats and hanging them up by the foyer.

“I’ll heat these up,” Renjun says, bringing their takeout of Christmas ham and baked potatoes to their kitchen counter. “Go shower first.”

Jeno answers with a kiss, so sweet and loving and in a way that makes Renjun grab the hem of Jeno’s shirt to steady himself lest his legs give way. The small of his back hits the edge of the kitchen counter, but he won’t let Jeno pull away just yet, requesting for a few more kisses Jeno’s willing to give.

Dinner is taken quick and over the sink. Dishes are just forks and knives, washed cleanly by Renjun as Jeno takes out the trash. Renjun heads for their en suite for his turn at the shower, still moving on reflex until the hot water hits his shoulders.

Why did I say that?

He knows of Jeno’s insecurities. He knows that though it’d been something they could joke about, the practice leg of their relationship isn’t something Jeno wanted to hear about. And Renjun understood that. He really did; it was tough for them both, coming to terms with the idea that they do have one another, but on some level… it has always been harder for Renjun – he did love Jeno first.

It’s not a competition, never a competition, but it’s true.

He loved Jeno when they were freshman and Jeno would skip class if Renjun were sick, just to check up on him. He loved Jeno when they were sophomores and Jeno would follow Renjun around to museums and exhibitions over weekends. He loved Jeno when they were juniors and Jeno would put Renjun above all else, above his dates and track-meets. He loved Jeno when they were seniors and Jeno asked Renjun to be a fake boyfriend – as practice.

Jeno, Jeno, Jeno. That’s all he can think about sometimes.

Renjun shampoos his hair.

Jeno wanted a soulmate. He wanted someone – anyone – that would be his one true love. He didn’t want Renjun, not at first, and it tortured Jeno that his words had once hurt Renjun so. Jeno wanted the love of his life, he wanted what Minhyung and Donghyuck have, but he didn’t actually want –

“Stop.” He angles his face under the running water. “That’s not true.”

Jeno wants to be with me.

But did he really?

Or was Jeno really with him because Renjun happened to be there? He just happened to be seated beside Jeno during homeroom their first year together, he just happened to be the one Jeno latched onto when they formed their group of five, he just happened to be there at the convenience store where they waited for Minhyung and Donghyuck, and there wasn’t anyone else, quite literally.

It must be mere coincidence for fate is too far a dream.

Renjun speeds through body wash and towels himself not-all-that dry. He steps into boxers and a loose shirt, flipping the bathroom light off and heading straight for bed, where Jeno is waiting for him. The covers are pulled up to his chest, glasses perched on the bridge of his nose as his taps away on his phone. His black hair fans out on his pillow, and Renjun takes not a second more to join him.

“Hi,” Jeno says, leaving his phone aside. He shifts so that Renjun is snug in his arms, as they were the night before, “Your hair’s still damp.”

“Oh, really?” Renjun wraps his right arm around Jeno’s waist. He keeps his voice light, “I hadn’t noticed.”

“I have,” Jeno breathes deeply. Renjun follows. “You’re getting my shirt all wet.”

“Good.”

Nothing floats between them for a good while. Renjun likes it when they have time like this together, so he takes another breath and appreciates it a little more. He’s a second away from caving to sleep when he startles them both with a question,

“What do you want to do for Christmas?”

Jeno echoes, “Christmas.”

“Mm.” Renjun tilts his chin upwards, eyes meeting Jeno’s briefly, “It’s our first Christmas together in this apartment.”

“It is,” Jeno hums. He thinks for a moment, “We didn’t get any decorations today.”

Renjun makes a deflated noise, “We forgot.”

“That’s fine,” Jeno hugs him close. “We wouldn’t have had the time to put them up or take them down anyway.”

Renjun doesn’t say anything to that, because he would’ve made time to decorate the apartment. “Is your family celebrating?”

“Not this year,” Jeno says. His fingers card Renjun’s hair, and it would be a lot more romantic if he hadn’t once admitted that Renjun’s hair felt a lot soft like cat fur. “My parents are going out of town and I don’t really feel like sitting through a five-hour dinner with my relatives alone.”

There’s a pause, “You could come celebrate it with me and my family?”

Jeno’s hair rustles against his pillow, glasses skewed when he glances down at Renjun. “Really?”

“Yeah.” Renjun presses his palm against Jeno’s chest, “My mom adores you and all of my cousins are practically in love with you already.” Jeno rolls his eyes, teeth peeking out from his smile, “Do you want to come with?”

“Yeah.” Jeno inches forward to kiss Renjun soft, “Yeah, I’ll come with.”

“Okay,” Renjun smiles. He kisses Jeno, palm on Jeno’s cheek. He sighs at the taste of Jeno, how velvet his lips are, soft and just so, so lovely. He huddles closer, and Jeno cuddles back, equaling in affection. “I’ll tell my mother to prepare an extra table setting.”

Jeno murmurs a quiet thank you. “We have that party with Hyuck too – on the 24th.”

“Right. I have both days off.”

“I have a shift at the coffeehouse in the day.” Renjun ducks away, and Jeno goes back to fiddling with his hair, “So I’ll meet you at their place?”

“Okay,” Renjun mumbles, growing sleepier by the second. “Do you think there’s going to be a lot of people?”

“Yes,” answers Jeno truthfully. “I’m pretty sure the whole team is coming. And Jaemin mentioned a few friends from his dance group.”

Renjun’s body lightens, “Okay.”

“I told Hyuck I’d be late, but I’ll bring a cake from the coffeehouse.”

Softer, “Okay.”

Jeno’s laugh makes Renjun’s cheek jiggle, “You’re falling asleep already?”

“Okay.”

“Really, Jun?”

“Okay.”

Jeno moves to leave his glasses on the bedside table, returning to hug Renjun close. “Jun?”

“Okay,” Renjun nods, losing consciousness. He breathes.

Click.

“We’re okay, right?”

“Okay,” Renjun says. “We’re okay.”

Are we?

 

x

 

It’s after two busy days apart that Renjun has his next day off. That morning, he slides out of their empty bed the moment he wakes fully. Counting the clicks from their ceiling fan was going to drive him absolutely mad.

“Wait, what? Did something happen?”

Renjun fidgets with a jar of spaghetti sauce, “No, no, nothing – happened.”

The store is fairly empty for a Tuesday afternoon. Donghyuck had been more than happy to spend his lunch break discussing Christmas gifts, his and Minhyung’s new place, and holiday plans over piping hot bowls of spicy soup and steamed rice. Renjun listened, thankful to still have Donghyuck’s time and company whenever he requested for it – just being around him makes Renjun feel like they’re right back in high school again. It’s as if they’ve been transported back in time, having long, lazy lunches before scurrying back to school to coop themselves up in the art studio for hours after hours.

Renjun finds that he’s been missing things like these a lot lately.

He misses conversations, times, places, memories. He misses them so much that he fears it’s taking him away from appreciating the now.

It’s been two hours since Donghyuck’s due back at work (a small print shop wedged between a massive bank and a busy café), but he’s placed priority to helping Renjun grocery shop instead. Amongst other things.

Donghyuck stares at him from where he’s standing on the opposite end of their shared shopping cart. “Then why’re you acting like this?”

“Like what?”

“Like something happened.”

“It’s – ” Renjun takes a deep breath. He returns the jar of sauce to the shelf, changing his mind about making dinner. He didn’t know if Jeno would be home or not, and making pasta for one is just too much of a hassle. “I just have a feeling.”

“Like a bad feeling? In your gut?” Donghyuck picks up a packet of brownies as they pass the baked goods aisle. He glances at the nutrition label before adding it to their cart, “Or what, like a sixth sense?”

“I don’t know,” Renjun answers honestly. He steers them towards the dry cereal aisle, “We just – he’s just busy because he’s taking up extra shifts at the coffeehouse. And the track team’s training up for some winter marathon event, so…”

“You haven’t seen him as much as you used to,” Donghyuck concludes. Renjun nods, and he takes the chance to continue, “You live together, Jun, don’t you see him every day?”

Renjun bites on his lip, “It’s not the same.”

“What’s not the same?”

Something. Everything. “I don’t know.”

Donghyuck folds his arms across his chest. “Have you tried talking to him about it?”

Renjun shakes his head. He grabs two boxes of those health bars Jeno liked to take as meal supplements (to Renjun’s disapproval), shrugging off Donghyuck’s stare, “I don’t want to bother him with it, he’s already busy enough.”

“And so are you!” Donghyuck counters, “You spend most days at that art exhibition and you go home at nearly nine every night, Jun.”

“I know,” he says. “But Jeno gets home even later.” And goes on, “He gets home later and he always smells like a party. Even after a shower, I can still smell… the bar. Like it’s stuck to his skin because he’s in there for so long.”

“You know Jeno doesn’t drink,” Donghyuck is quick to rebut. “He never drinks during season, and he doesn’t even like alcohol all that much.”

Renjun simmers, “But the people around him do.”

Donghyuck frowns, “And you don’t trust that Jeno would turn them down?”

“Don’t do that,” Renjun tackles the uproar in his heart. “You know what I meant.”

“Jun – ”

“And you and I know how seasons are,” Renjun interjects, arranging the boxes neatly in the cart. “Long hours after school, weekend training trips… Those – dinners they always have… It’s not like I don’t know how it gets during seasons.”

Donghyuck jams his foot against the cart’s front wheel, stopping Renjun from walking away. “Then what are you really mad about?”

“I don’t know,” Renjun tells him sincerely, exasperatedly. “I don’t know, okay?” He grips the handles tight, knuckles paling, “I don’t know why I’m anxious, I don’t know why I’m nervous, I don’t know why I’m scared.”

Donghyuck softens, “Jun…”

“I don’t have a reason to be, I know,” Renjun laughs, weakly and pitifully, almost painfully, really. “So, no, Hyuck, I don’t know what’s wrong, and I don’t want to talk to him about it. I just don’t know what to do with all these stupid feelings that I don’t want, okay?”

He’s ignored completely, “What are you scared of?”

Renjun’s eyes dart up to meet Donghyuck’s watchful ones. His heart sinks a little closer to his stomach, and his toes curl up in his shoes. The back of his neck breaks out into a cold sweat, and the pressure builds like a dam behind his eyes.

Jeno never really picked me.

“Renjun,” Donghyuck says, like a statement. Like a fact. He sidesteps around the shopping cart, taking Renjun’s hand off the handle to hold it tight, “Jeno is not going to break up with you.”

The words hit hard. Renjun stomps on the shiver that crawls evilly up his spine. He knew Donghyuck would say it, would disagree with it, but he didn’t expect it to hit quite this sharply.

Maybe he will. When he finds someone better, stronger, warmer.

“He’s busy, okay?” Donghyuck reasons. Renjun snaps out of it. “All of us are – Min’s juggling two jobs and so am I, Jaemin’s neck deep in his teaching aid placement program, and Jeno’s busy with his season and his job, isn’t he?”

“I know,” Renjun says, mostly to himself. “I know, I just – I think it’s the apartment.”

Donghyuck blanks, “What about it?”

Renjun rests his weight against the cart, “It’s empty all the time.” He goes on, not waiting for Donghyuck, “I used to live at home and there were people around all the time. Then I moved in with you guys, and you and Jaemin were there during seasons, whenever Jeno and Minhyung were having trainings. But now… I don’t know – ”

“ – I feel lonely.”

Donghyuck doesn’t answer too quick, doesn’t rush to tell Renjun’s he’s overreacting. Instead, he sympathizes, “I’m always here, Jun.” He pulls Renjun into a bone crushing hug, air forced out of Renjun’s lungs. “And so is Min, and Jaems, and Jeno – especially Jeno. You’re not – you’re not alone.”

“I know,” Renjun hugs Donghyuck back. He lets go when Donghyuck takes a step away to study his face, “I know I shouldn’t be feeling this way, I just – ”

“That’s not it,” Donghyuck says. In earnest, “That’s not it at all. You need to talk to Jeno about it.”

“It’s fine, he’s busy and – ”

“Renjun.” Donghyuck’s brows knit together, “This isn’t something you can just sweep under the rug, you know? You need to talk about it, and Jeno has to know.”

“I – ”

“You live with him now,” Donghyuck stresses. “You can’t hide this from him then expect him to do something about it.”

“Okay, okay,” Renjun relents. He knows where Donghyuck’s coming from, and he knows it’s coming from a good place. “I will.”

Donghyuck narrows his eyes, “When?”

Renjun groans. “After Christmas.”

“Jun – ”

“He’s busy right now, okay?” Renjun slides from under the hand Donghyuck has on his shoulder. “His season is ending soon – I’ll talk to him about it after Christmas.”

Donghyuck shrugs, but he says nothing more.

They pay for their things and go their separate ways, with Donghyuck reminding Renjun to bring chips and dip for the party two days away. He tells Renjun that he’s always a phone call away before turning the corner with another wave goodbye.

Renjun’s phone buzzes when he steps into their building’s lobby,

 

21 DEC [15:32] jeno: babie
21 DEC [15:32] jeno: are you busy?

 

He’s climbing the stairs with groceries hanging off his arms when the message sends,

 

21 DEC [15:34] renjun: i’m at home, why?

 

The reply is quick,

 

21 DEC [15:34] jeno: i left a bag of gifts in the room
21 DEC [15:35] jeno: i was supposed to take them with me this morning, but i forgot >.<

 

Renjun doesn’t bother with shedding his coat when he enters the apartment. His toes his shoes off and leaves the groceries on the counter before heading straight to their bedroom. The bag from their night of Christmas shopping rests neatly by the foot of their bed.

 

21 DEC [15:37] renjun: i’ll bring it to you
21 DEC [15:37] renjun: track?
21 DEC [15:38] jeno: i love you


21 DEC [15:38] renjun: i love you too

 

The walk to campus is not too far. It’s fifteen minutes away, but Jeno likes to say Renjun takes twenty because of his not-as-long legs. To which Renjun would kick him with a not-as-long leg, making him regret ever poking fun at Renjun’s quite-reasonably-long legs.

He gets there quickly, maneuvering through the different buildings and lawns towards the school’s track and field stadium. There are yet another long flight of stairs Renjun has to tackle, leaving him embarrassingly breathless at the top. The hallways are painted a fresh white, and Renjun follows the signs that lead him towards the stands.

It smells like grass and tartan and rubber and… sweat. Renjun’s no stranger to this mix, having spent most of his high school days waiting in the stands for Jeno to finish practice. The bag sways about as he swivels on his heels to find the group of runners about thirty feet away. He spots Minhyung easily, standing with four other boys as they pace the track, cooling down after a run.

Finding Jeno’s easy too – Renjun spots his boyfriend’s jet black hair flouncing as he turns the far corner of the brick red track. His skin is pale against his black jacket, and Renjun makes a mental note to buy some sunscreen the next time he visits the pharmacy.

Though, Jeno isn’t running alone.

A girl is there too, in a neon yellow jacket and grey tights. She matches Jeno in stride and they look comfortable, talking as they keep pace together. They laugh, and Renjun turns away.

Talk to him, Donghyuck’s voice rings loud in his head. Renjun shakes it away. He would never doubt Jeno, he never wants that between them. There’s no need to talk to him, I trust him.

“Renjun!”

Minhyung’s timing is impeccable. He waves for Renjun to go over, and so he does, with heavy feet and a weight on his shoulders.

“Hey,” he greets, cordial. He’d met the rest of the runners a handful of times when Jeno’d brought him along for their lunches and dinners, and they say hello too. A few words are exchanged before they excuse themselves for the showers.

“Running errands for your runnerboy?” Minhyung teases, jerking his chin towards the bag hooked on his arm. He notices the red and green, “Christmas gifts?”

“Yeah,” Renjun says, shifting his weight from one leg to another. A wind breezes by, a shiver creeps up his spine. “It’s for you guys. He forgot to take it with him this morning.”

Minhyung’s eyes widen comically, lips forming a tiny o. “For me?”

“The team,” Renjun says. He lifts the bag to inspect the boxes of chocolates, to show Minhyung the Godiva labels Jeno had been gushing on about, but – oh.

“He gave the team some chocolates during our last training.” Minhyung explains, “We’re not supposed to have too much sweets during season, so he wanted to gift them early.”

“Oh.” Renjun’s mouth runs dry. He touches the ribbons on one of the neatly wrapped set of hair accessories. Set of three, pink, beige, and silver. Right. “These are for your – new teammates.”

“New – ” Minhyung glances out onto the track. “Oh.”

Renjun knows it’s not a big deal, Jeno asking him to bring these gifts here. There has to be a reason he did, he wouldn’t ask Renjun to come all the way down with gifts for someone he barely yet knew.

“I can take those,” Minhyung says slowly. Renjun hands the bag to him, hoping the older boy would say nothing about his sweaty palms. “I’ll just leave them aside for later.” He hops over a couple of backpacks to leave the gifts by Jeno’s, returning with a small smile, “Why don’t you join us for dinner?”

I feel sick. “I bought some food earlier, so I’m just going to – ” Renjun’s eyes dart towards the track. “Go home.”

Minhyung follows his gaze, “Are you sure? He only has two laps left, I think.” He looks back to Renjun, and Renjun hates how he knows Minhyung can tell something is up. Something he and Donghyuck have in common, something they like to use against him far too often. “You could wait for him? Leave together?”

“It’s okay,” Renjun says, already backing away. From his peripheral, he sees Jeno turn the nearest curve. “He’d probably want to join you guys for dinner.”

“Come with,” Minhyung says. “Donghyuck might drop by after his shift?”

“No, that’s – ”

“Well, you can’t escape now,” Minhyung motions for him to look over his shoulder. Something sinks. “He’s spotted you.”

Renjun finds Jeno looking right him, the brightest smile on his face. It changes in that second, and Renjun knows he’s too late in masking whatever his expression was. Jeno doesn’t slow down, but he does frown, lips parting as he continues to breathe deep. Renjun waves, with a smile plastered across his face, hoping his presence wouldn’t throw Jeno off.

Stop, stop, stop.

“He’s speeding up,” Minhyung notes. Renjun sees it too, the way he inches forward with every step, leaving his running partner half a step to slow. He hears her call out for Jeno, but the boy isn’t listening. “He always does this, you know?”

Renjun keeps his eyes on Jeno racing against the track, “What?”

“Speed up.” Minhyung laughs, “Whenever you’re here, I mean. Or if you guys have a date planned after.”

She’s chasing him now, closing the distance. “Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why’?” Minhyung sounds surprised, “He wants to see you.”

Renjun tears his eyes away from the track, swallowing thickly when Minhyung is staring straight at him. He curses the aura Minhyung has; it makes Renjun rethink everything, makes Renjun start, makes him stop.

“You should wait for him,” Minhyung says, picking his bottle up. He takes a swig, “He’s just about done anyway.”

Renjun nods. He watches Minhyung leave for the showers too. When he turns back to the track, he sees Jeno cross the finish line, with her right on his heels.

“Lee Jeno, that was absolutely not the plan!” He hears her yell, groaning as they slow to a jog. Jeno keeps his eyes on Renjun, still confused, worried. She grabs onto his elbow, dainty fingers closing around his bicep. “Hey – Jeno?”

Renjun stumbles back.

What am I doing? What am I doing? Jeno was happy before, and now he’s not. Of course he’s not. Renjun’s just practice after all – practice runs aren’t meant to last forever, no matter how good they are.

His hand flies up to the ring against his sternum, under his coat and sweater.

Is this really meant for me? Then, agonizingly, Do I deserve this?

“Jun,” Jeno calls out. He starts towards the stands, but Renjun doubles back again. Jeno’s face falls, and he stops, as if he were afraid Renjun would run, as if he knew Renjun would. “Renjun?”

Her hand falls away. She looks worried, Renjun finds. She’s looking at Jeno, then back at Renjun, brows taut. Her expression is tense, until it seems to dawn on her who Renjun is. Her cheeks flush, and her eyes dart away.

“I – I – ” Renjun stammers, head aching. Why?

His feet are telling him to go! but his mind is telling him that he knows he will never be able to outrun Jeno, not in a million years, not even if Jeno were weighed down by rocks.

Maybe he won’t come after you.

Renjun bolts.

He flies back into the hallway and his heart shrieks when he hears Jeno call out for him again. The walls pass in a blur, confusing Renjun as he follows the signs back out of the stands. The sound of Jeno’s shoes against the smooth concrete and the fear of what's about to come forces him to run as hard as he can.

“Renjun!”

He takes a detour on the left, into the hallways meant for officials and players to use during games, hoping the doors would slow Jeno down. His legs scream in defiance as he pushes himself towards the last door he remembers entering from.

Weak, he turns around, heart shattering when he doesn’t hear Jeno come after him anymore. Doesn’t hear the squeak of Jeno’s ratty trainers. He jerks to a stop, ears thundering with only the sound of his heart and his breathing.

I have to go.

He spins on his heels towards the final door, and –

Thud!

“Oh my god!”

Renjun covers his face, tears forming as his mind registers the dull pain across his forehead where the door had slammed right into it. He nearly falls to his knees, but Jeno is here, of course he is, he must have taken a shortcut, holding onto him.

“Are you okay?” Jeno’s asking, trying to pry Renjun’s hands from his face. Renjun’s face burns when a few more tears let slip, “Jun, let me take a look.”

Shields up.

“Stop,” he manages to get out. Jeno stills, “I’m – I’m fine so – you don’t have to.”

Jeno wastes no time, “I know that look.” His voice is unsteady, “You ran.” Slowly again, “You ran.”

“Nothing,” Renjun wills the tears away. He doesn’t want to talk about it. Not now, not ever. He’s made his decision – and he’s okay with it. It’s the right thing to do, it’s the best thing he can do for Jeno. “I just – I have dinner plans and I had to go. I have to go.”

“That’s not true,” Jeno says, voice tight. Renjun bites on his lip, “You said you wanted to make pasta, I saw the text, I was just  – ”

“I’m saying now that I have dinner plans, okay?” Renjun huffs. He lets his hands fall to his sides. His cheeks are stained wet but he plays them off, morphing his expression into one that casts all out. He swipes the tears away with the back of his hand. “Your teammates are probably looking for you. You should go.”

“What?” Jeno shakes his head like he can’t understand words, “Why are you saying this?”

Renjun stares at the door behind Jeno, “I’m not saying anything, I just – I have to go, and so do you.”

He tries to walk away, but Jeno blocks his path, palms open. “Renjun, just wait a second – ”

It’s hard, walking away. Renjun’s mind flashes to all the times he’s thought of it over the past month – of all the times he’s thought to do it. Wouldn’t it be better for Jeno? Wouldn’t he no longer be tying Jeno down to him? Wouldn’t Jeno be free?

“Did I do something wrong?” Jeno asks. It makes Renjun chest swell in guilt and sorrow. He searches Renjun’s face, and it takes too much to conceal the things he wants to say,

You didn’t pick me. You didn’t, and now I’m scared you’ll pick someone else. I’m scared I’m not your soulmate. I’m not your soulmate, I’m not the one for you.

“I don’t know what to – ” his voice is thick, “You ran away from me.”

“I have to go,” Renjun tells him again. He pushes past and Jeno grabs onto him – relief, for a second. His resolve cracks shallow, weakening. Jeno holds onto him firmly, but not at all tightly, like he were catching something from falling, from disappearing. Renjun could pull away, he should pull away – but he doesn’t. “I have to go.”

“You’re not denying it.” Jeno whispers, “You ran from me?”

Nothing.

“Talk to me,” Jeno implores. His hand is cold. “Renjun, if you don’t talk to me, I can’t – ”

Renjun snatches his arm away. The touch leaves a burning mark, “Stop.”

“Stop what?” Agitation bubbles.

“Everything,” Renjun hugs himself. He does not cry, does not tear, not when Jeno’s standing before him, ready to crumple. I have to do this, “Just – leave me alone.”

Jeno follows when Renjun turns to go, “No.”

“I said – ”

“No!” Jeno steps in his way. His hair is mussed and windblown, “You’re not being fair.”

It startles Renjun, “I’m not – what?”

“You’re leaving me in the dark.” Jeno straightens. He’s getting frustrated. Good, Renjun thinks. He’ll realize it on his own, he’ll know I’m – no good. I’m just frustrating him. “Please just – tell me what this is about – stop hiding it from me.”

Renjun composes himself, “I said it was nothing. Why do you keep insisting I’m hiding something?”

“Because you are.” Jeno simmers, “You’re not like this. I know you’re not. Talk to me, Jun, you can tell me anything.”

And before he can stop himself, “You don’t know me.”

An outright lie.

Jeno makes a pained noise. His eyes glisten, irritation as clear as day, “I know you’re angry, but you have to tell me what about.” Renjun wants to leave, he has to leave. “I love you, of course I know you.” He says again, afraid Renjun hadn’t heard, didn’t believe, “I love you.”

Renjun holds steady, “I don’t have anything to say.”

“Jun – ”

“Why do you keep insisting that I have to tell you?” Renjun fumes – don’t you know what would happen if I did? Can’t we just leave this as it is? “I don’t have to – ”

“Because!” Tenderly, sadly. “I can’t do nothing when you’re upset, Renjun.” He takes a deep breath, “I just can’t, okay? I have to help fix it – I want to help fix whatever it is, so just – tell me what I can do to help.”

Renjun backs away, “It’s not – ”

“What is it?” Jeno asks. He has a foot through the door now – he knows there’s something. “Is it – the gifts? For the girls? Did – was that – ”

“No, Jeno – ”

“Is it the Christmas party?” Jeno hedges into Renjun’s space, energy around him so clear – bright white and sharp red. “Did something happen?”

“Jeno – ”

And then again, “Jeno?”

Though it is not Renjun’s voice again, but hers. She’s steps behind, a distance away but close enough. Far too close. Renjun feels exposed; he doesn’t turn to face her, but he looks to Jeno instead.

“Coach Yoon,” she starts. Cautious. “He wants us back there for a debrief.”

Jeno nods, “I’ll be there.”

“Go,” Renjun tells him.

It doesn’t take Jeno even a second, “No.”

“Jeno, please.” Renjun doesn’t know how long he can keep this up.

His knuckles are turning white from how hard he’s holding onto himself, from how he’s trying his hardest not to reach out for Jeno. He needs to keep it to himself. He can feel the hurt sinking in, how he’s hurting himself, allowing Jeno the chance to slip through.

He doesn’t try to catch it this time.

I should let him go.

He drops his voice to a whisper, “She’s waiting.”

“No,” Jeno’s hand lands lightly over Renjun’s. Renjun nearly grabs on. Don’t go. “I’m not going.”

“You should.” Renjun nods. He smiles small, “You should leave.”

It snaps like a rubber-band. Jeno’s pleading look, confused and distressed, fades into one Renjun didn’t know he was avoiding – in that second, realization dawns. In the next, Jeno’s alarmed.

Renjun knows all of the little signs; a small vein on the right of Jeno’s neck starts to show, his lips are pulled to a tight line, the hand over Renjun’s stiffens.

Clearly, Jeno grounds out, “I am not leaving.”

Renjun knows it. He knows it like he knows to save Jeno when old ladies at that Chinese restaurant swarm him, gushing over his good looks. He knows it like he knows when Jeno’s drunk and ready to leave parties – his eyes fix to whatever drink’s in his hand and his legs are crossed twice, waiting for Renjun to come take him home. He knows it like it’s a tap to his heart.

Jeno knows now.

“I’m not leaving.” He’s not angry. It’s more like he’s trying to remind Renjun of it, or that he’s sad Renjun’s forgotten. “I’m not going to.”

Renjun watches him carefully, “You have to.” She can hear, he knows, and if they have to have this conversation, he doesn’t want to have it here. He doesn’t want anyone to hear him breaking Jeno’s heart, because that’s what he’s doing, isn’t he? “Everyone is waiting for you.”

“This isn’t – ” Jeno steps closer. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know,” Renjun untangles his arms. Jeno’s hand falls away. “Just go.”

“Stop telling me to leave.” His eyes dart to her, and Renjun knows not what he does, but she goes, door closing shut. Jeno tells him instead now, “Don’t do this – wait for me.”

“I have – ”

“I know you don’t have dinner plans.” He looks down, “Just wait for me, okay? The brief will be five minutes and I’ll shower at home so just… wait for me.”

Renjun can’t get out of it. Not when he doesn’t want to leave either, “You have a dinner.”

“I don’t care.” He nods, “Wait for me?”

There’s nothing to say to that, “Okay.”

 

x

 

Renjun doesn’t wait. He doesn’t think twice the moment Jeno leaves the empty hallway, he doesn’t look back when he goes back out into the cold and heads straight for the streets, he doesn’t – not when his mind chants that he’s doing the right thing.

Jeno might be able to shake his resolution, but he won’t let it happen. He can’t.

Where he goes is home. Home to his family in the suburbs, not to their apartment – cold and empty and hollow, so hollow that Renjun feels like he’s walking around with dents on his shoulders. It’s a forty-minute bus ride and Renjun takes it with only his phone and wallet in hand. It’s a forty-minute bus ride and Renjun turns his phone off the moment he boards it – he hasn’t the willpower to ignore Jeno’s texts or calls, he’s used up all of his energy psyching himself that he didn’t want Jeno to fight for him.

Because he did, didn’t he?

He wants to tell Jeno everything – how he’d been feeling lonely, how the long nights had planted seeds of doubt and fear in his heart, how the days had been hard to get by when he’s got so much building in him. Renjun’s nauseous by how he’s been keeping everything to himself – like he’s so close to bursting at the seams and hurting himself and all those around him.

Should he want this? Would Jeno want this?

The bus ride is forty-minutes, and Renjun never once stops thinking about the boy he’d left behind.

 

x

 

“You’re not coming?” is what Donghyuck says on the twenty-fourth. There’s music in the back, and Renjun hears it fade out when Donghyuck hurries to a room away from the party. “At all?”

“Sorry, Hyuck.” Renjun groans when his pair of younger cousins run by, hands and cheeks covered in baking flour. Trust Zhiruo to want to bake a gingerbread house from scratch with all of their younger cousins running about. “I promised my mom I’d stay home to help with the children. And to prep for tomorrow’s dinner.”

“Right.” Renjun hears a door on Donghyuck’s end shut, effectively muting the pounding music. “Of course you did.”

“I’m sorry,” he says sincerely. It’s Donghyuck and Minhyung’s first Christmas party at their new apartment and Renjun’s seen firsthand how much Donghyuck’d been looking forward to it. It’s merely unfortunate, how he has to skip out on it. “All of my cousins are staying over from Christmas to New Years and the house is just packed, Hyuck.” He adds, “They just need an extra pair of hands these couple of days.”

“Sure, sure, sure,” Donghyuck mumbles, clearly not at all listening. He ponders, though not in question, “And I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that Jeno isn’t here tonight either?”

Renjun closes his eyes. He hadn’t slept all night. His mother hadn’t actually been all too happy he’d returned to the house; all of his cousins, all seven of them, had already designated sleeping areas and Renjun being home had Junxiang demoted to sleeping in the living room.

“He isn’t?”

“Nope,” Donghyuck pops the p. “He said he’d show up after work but – I guess not.”

“He’s probably back at the apartment,” Renjun reassures. Though, he isn’t entirely sure if Donghyuck were the one who needed it, “I think, I mean.”

“Jun,” he hears Donghyuck sigh. The line goes quiet and Renjun readies himself for what Donghyuck might say. Zhenjun and Xingjun make another lap around the living room, streaking flour across the carpet. It’s when they’re scrambling back down the hall that Donghyuck is speaking again, “He called us last night.”

Blankly, “He did.”

“You didn’t go home?” Donghyuck sighs heavily, “To the apartment?”

Renjun sinks into the couch, legs weak. “I came home to help my – ”

“You should’ve at least called me or Minhyung or Jaemin,” Donghyuck is nothing less than disappointed. “We were all so worried, and you weren’t contactable – we’d thought something had happened to you… That you were like, passed out in a ditch somewhere and no one could find you.”

Yufan, cousin from his third aunt, saunters into the living room with his laptop and headphones, joining Renjun on the couch with a small nod. He doesn’t seem to notice the difficulty Renjun’s having with breathing.

“Sorry,” he murmurs, picking at the rip in his jeans. “I – wasn’t thinking.”

“You weren’t,” Donghyuck reaffirms. A bated pause, “He wouldn’t stop crying, Renjun.”

His heart very well stops. “Oh,” is all Renjun can manage.

“You have to talk to him,” Donghyuck sounds a little gentler. Renjun doesn’t think he deserves it, quite frankly. “He doesn’t know what’s going on – he thinks you want to break up.”

Another pause.

And when Donghyuck speaks again, it’s somber. “Do you?”

Renjun says nothing.

Donghyuck clears his throat, “Call me soon.”

He hangs up. Renjun pulls the phone away from his ear without a word, emotions a frenzy inside him. There’s too much to think about and Renjun can’t just sit around and pick his thoughts apart. He just doesn’t want to. He can’t.

“Who was that?” Yufan asks, eyes never leaving his computer screen.

Renjun tucks his phone away, “Nobody.”

The doorbell rings.

“Ugh,” Yufan groans. Renjun watches as the younger boy rests his laptop aside to get up, doing a quick little stretch, “About time – Liyan promised she’d bring fried chicken.”

“Fried chicken?” Renjun echoes. He stands to follow Yufan to the door, trailing behind, socked feet cold against marble. “But we’re about to have dinner soon.”

“Doubt it,” Yufan snorts. “She and Zhangwei insisted on making potato gratin or whatever, and I’m not going to wait three hours like I did last year for really badly burnt food.”

Renjun makes a strangled noise, but he admits defeat. He’s far too tired to argue over anything right now and even as the oldest amongst the cousins, they all tower over him anyway – metaphorically and physically.

Yufan yanks the door open with a dramatic sigh, “Well, took you long – oh. Sorry.”

Renjun hurries from where he’d been waiting, peeking from behind Yufan’s side. He doesn’t get to say anything, doesn’t get to ask who’s there? because it dies in his throat when he sees the one person he doesn’t want to see right now – or maybe, he’s the only person Renjun wants to see. The only person Renjun wants right now.

Jeno stands on his front porch.

“Hey man,” Yufan says, breaking the silence. “My bad, I thought you were Liyan.” He steps aside to let Jeno in, but Jeno doesn’t move.

His eyes are on Renjun, and even in the dim glow of the front door light, his dark circles are prominent, did he stay up all night? The corners of his eyes are red, and they match the blush on his cheeks – probably from the biting cold, did he run here? Renjun worries at the sight of just Jeno’s coffeehouse work shirt under a light down parka, he must be freezing.

“No, I – ” Jeno’s voice. They’ve only been distant a day and something in Renjun already has him thinking that he can’t live without hearing it. “Sorry, I didn’t know you guys were celebrating tonight. I thought the dinner was tomorrow.”

“It is,” Yufan nods. “We’re just all hanging out here since they’re doing a trial run of tomorrow’s dinner and the kids want a sleepover.” He taps on the door twice, “Aren’t you going to come in?”

Jeno looks to Renjun and it startles him to find that he can’t read Jeno’s expression. He can’t tell if it’s confusion or distress, or sorrow or anger. Renjun swallows thickly. He doesn’t want to turn Jeno away anymore. He doesn’t want to hurt Jeno like this – he should tell Jeno upfront, how he thought Jeno deserved more than just him, how he sees the signs of their inevitable break up and how it’s okay if Jeno agrees to this, if Jeno thinks Renjun’s right – he should agree to it.

“Okay, I’m out – it’s cold,” Yufan shivers. “Call me when the fried chicken gets here.” He turns on his heel and retreats into the house, leaving Renjun defenseless without Yufan’s lanky body to hide behind.

It’s torturous, the silence.

Jeno breaks it – “Come home.”

Everything in Renjun dulls. The worry that he isn’t doing what’s best for Jeno, that he isn’t enough, that he should’ve let go a long time ago. Fear that if he ever spoke a word of this, Jeno would agree – Jeno would leave. He would say, You’re right. I don’t want to love you anymore, because it’s not that Jeno doesn’t love him – Renjun would never doubt that.

He’s doubting himself. He’s questioning his place in Jeno’s life, but where else would he stand with Jeno? A friend? An acquaintance? An estranged ex-boyfriend?

Would Renjun ever be strong enough to let Jeno go? Does he want to be? Would Jeno ever want him to be?

The fire, bright and sharp, dims.

“I know you don’t want to talk,” Jeno continues. He doesn’t give Renjun a chance; his eyes are already wet. “But just come home with me.”

Renjun wants nothing but to hold Jeno’s hand, “I’m sorry – ”

“No.” Jeno speaks with resolution, but it’s shaky, as if he’s practiced this before, practiced what to say. He grips onto his jacket, “You have to give me a reason. You have to talk to me if you want to – ” his voice breaks, “You can’t just decide this on your own.”

He thinks you want to break up.

Renjun tries to say, “Jeno, just – ”

“Well, well, well! Look who it is!”

Jeno takes a sharp inhale and looks away. Renjun tears his eyes from Jeno, turning to glare at his pair of cousins walking up the pathway, groceries on their arms. Liyan is flanked with Zhangwei and Xiuying, a friend of Liyan’s Renjun hasn’t seen in a while; they bumble up to the door, and Jeno steps aside to let them in.

“Ying,” Liyan grins. “I don’t think you’ve met Jeno, have you?”

Renjun feels his insides shrivel. Jeno pulls back.

“Nice to meet you,” Xiuying says, greeting Jeno with a sweet smile. She sticks her hand out, and Jeno takes it, returning the sentiment. She gives him a once over, “I like your coat.”

Renjun knows it’s out of politeness when Jeno laughs, mostly air, and his eyes curve into crescents. It isn’t like he usually is when he says, “Thank you.”

“Hold your horses,” Liyan says, toeing her shoes off. She grabs on to the doorframe for support, “He’s taken.”

Xiuying rolls her eyes. To Jeno, she says, “I still like your coat.”

“I’m saying it on Jun’s behalf,” Liyan snorts. She calls for Yufan to come and get your stupid chicken!, “He’s always gushing about you, you know?” She tells Jeno, feigning annoyance, “Couldn’t shut up about you during that weekend we took away.”

“Yan!” Renjun hisses, scandalized. He avoids Jeno’s stare, “You’re all letting all the cold air in, so just – ”

“Don’t be shy, Jun,” Liyan scoffs. She tosses her shoes into the shoe bin, “It’s a big deal, y’know! The oldest of us all, already attached and so, so, so in love.”

Jeno pretends to observe the sole of his shoe. Renjun knows better.

“Oh, shut up,” Zhangwei groans. He knees Liyan to move her along, “You’re just jealous of Jun, get over it, you ugly.”

“You shut up,” she throws back, wrestling her way into the house. Yufan appears to grab the fried chicken before leaving again, “Don’t be a brat, you’re younger than me.”

Zhangwei sneers, “That just means you’ll die earlier.”

“You ungrateful little shit – ”

“Okay!” Renjun shuts his eyes. I need quiet. I need to think. He opens them to see Jeno staring right at him, worried now, I need you. “Get dinner ready,” he tells Xiuying. He grabs his coat off the rack and shrugs it on, “I’m going to the convenience store.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Liyan sing-songs. She lets Renjun pass, “You just want Jeno all to yourself.”

Renjun zips his jacket up to his neck. He pulls his scarf off the coat hook, “Yeah.” He grabs onto Jeno’s hand. “Yeah, I do.”

And with that, he drags Jeno away from the house to lead them down the street. Liyan's catcall echoes the quiet neighborhood and Renjun ignores it, yanking Jeno along.

It’s only when they turn the street that Renjun slows his steps. He hears Jeno breathe heavy beside him, hands clammy in Renjun’s, grip tight as they huddle down the road – a trip they used to make together every day after school.

The night is cold. So very cold, but Renjun finds relief that it isn’t from himself tonight. He’s warm, in fact, for the first time in a long time, as he leads the way down the empty street, Jeno just half a step behind him.

The umbrellas come into view – red, green, yellow. They pass the lamppost Minhyung and Donghyuck once stood near, whispering loving words. The convenience store stands, waiting.

Jeno follows silently when Renjun hurries them in, keeping close with his chest to Renjun’s arm. He says nothing when Renjun picks out a bunch of candies and chocolates (some of his favorites, more of Jeno’s), and he doesn’t make a sound when Renjun picks out some hand warmers too – the ones Jeno had gifted him.

He tears the packaging open when they retreat back out into the cold. Jeno stands by his side, saying nothing still, accepting the warmers quietly when Renjun hands them to him. He keeps his right hand linked to Renjun’s left.

Renjun doesn’t sit where they had two years ago. He has them start on their walk back, but Jeno seems to have had enough of silence,

“Are we breaking up?”

Renjun’s chest tightens. Nothing can describe the way his breath, his soul, leaves his body. Courage is ever fleeting, and Renjun thinks he’d regret it for life if he never finds out. “Do you want to?”

Jeno stops. The world stops. “No,” he whispers. The hand warmer is forgotten; it drops to the sidewalk. “No.”

That’s enough for me. “Then we’re not going to,” Renjun says. He crouches to pick the hand warmer, and Jeno lets him, waits for him to straighten.

“Do you?” Jeno asks. His hand closes around Renjun’s, sharing the warmer like they once had (and have many times after). “Do you – want to break up with me?”

Renjun looks up to the skies to keep his tears from spilling over. It’s dark, and they are no stars. They’re all muted by the clouds. “I don’t,” he whispers. “No, I don’t.”

Renjun wishes the day were over. He wishes he’d never said anything in the first place, he wishes he’d never lost the grip he had on his feelings, he wishes he’d never let it get this far.

“I don’t want to break up,” Renjun says. He squeezes Jeno’s hand, and he smiles. It feels terrible to, but he just wants it under the rug, “It’s nothing.”

Jeno’s face crumples at the shields, “Please.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Why?” Jeno’s anxiousness surfaces, “You left, Renjun. It can’t be nothing.” He sniffles, “I don’t want to force you, Jun, but I – I can’t.”

Renjun doesn’t move, “What?”

It fizzles, then pops.

Cli –

“Something’s wrong and you won’t tell me what.” A car zooms by, “You lie awake at night and you won’t tell me why. You left and you didn’t call, didn’t text, didn’t seem to care that it would’ve hurt me if you left. And it did.”

“Jeno – ”

“You say we’re okay, but I know we’re not.” Jeno stammers through it, exasperation, desperation. “You lied. You lied and said we were okay, you didn’t want to talk about it. You won’t talk to me and you don’t seem to want to talk to me anymore.”

Renjun damns his sensitivity because he hates crying, but there’s no way he’s holding it in if he hears more, “That’s not it.”

“Then what is it?” And it scares Renjun to see Jeno cry. It’s almost – poignant because Jeno doesn’t ever cry, doesn’t ever want to let Renjun see him sad. “Please tell me, because you’re scaring me. You’re making it seem like you – like you don’t want me anymore.”

“Stop, Jeno – ”

“You don’t want me anymore, is that it?” Jeno tears his hands away. Renjun stops breathing. He’s never seen Jeno like this, he doesn’t know what to do, how to defuse it. He tries to speak, tries to tell Jeno to stop, but Jeno’s spiraling, “You should’ve told me – you should tell me if you don’t – if you don’t want me, if you don’t love me anymore. You can’t just – you can’t – I just – ”

Trenchant, “You didn’t pick me.”

Oh god.

Jeno starts, then stops. “What?”

“That’s not – ” Renjun fumbles with the scarf in his hand, “I didn’t – ”

“What do you mean?” He amends when Renjun wants to brush it off, “And don’t say it’s nothing.”

Renjun thinks he’s had enough. Looking at the way Jeno’s chest heaves with every breath, the way his eyes seem to bleed pink, the way his heart is clearly broken – Renjun decides that it’s time. He doesn’t care if Jeno agrees, if Jeno finally gets to realize that Renjun is merely coincidence, not fate, if Jeno wants to walk away tonight.

He unravels the scarf around his neck to loop it around Jeno’s.

“You didn’t pick me,” Renjun says. He smoothens the scarf, cold fingers brushing against Jeno’s warm cheeks, “I lied, when you asked me whether or not I’d been thinking about – our practice days.” Jeno freezes, “And I’m sorry that I lied – I have been thinking about it. About back then.”

“… Why?”

“I – ” Renjun doesn’t know where to start. He tucks the ends of the scarf into Jeno’s jacket, “The apartment. It’s… empty, and I felt lonely, and I couldn’t sleep. And when I can’t sleep, I – I think.”

Jeno exhales sharply.

“I wondered.” Renjun murmurs, “I wondered if it had been someone else with you at the store that day… If it hadn’t been me, I wondered if you’d have asked them to – be practice.”

“Stop,” Jeno breathes.

“I thought, maybe…” Renjun smiles, to help ease the conversation, to help Jeno accept it. It feels like someone’s controlling him, running his mouth for him, “I thought you were just stuck with me, and that you couldn’t break up with me because you didn’t know there were better – there are better.”

Jeno backpedals, “I don’t want to hear this. I don’t – ”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Renjun reaches for him, reaches to tug on Jeno’s jacket. Jeno stays. “I – didn’t know what to do – I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t know if I should, I – I don’t know what to do.”

“So what are you telling me right now?” Jeno bites, “That you’ve decided all on your own now? That you don’t want us anymore?”

“No, I just – ”

Harshly, “Then what?”

Renjun feels his smile drop. “I’m telling you I don’t know, Jeno, please just – ”

“What do you want, Jun?” Jeno says. He waits for nothing, “Do you want to be with me or not?”

“It’s not that simple.” Renjun watches Jeno shake his head, “It’s not! It’s not when you have to know that there are other – ”

Jeno interjects, “Do you want this?” And when Renjun doesn’t answer, the hesitation stings. Jeno jerks himself free, “You don’t.”

No, no, no.

“I do, I do,” Renjun cries. “Wait – ”

“I will never want anyone else.” There’s a spark of anger in Jeno’s eyes – then it’s gone suddenly, and Renjun wishes the anger would come back. The look of emptiness is far frightening. Jeno looks pained when he pleads, “I don’t want anyone else.”

Renjun falls forward to grabs on Jeno’s sleeve. He doesn’t know what to say, how to take it all back, how to make it better, but he does know he has to move – he does so Jeno can’t move a step further, can’t walk away from this – whatever it is, because he wants it.

Jeno’s hand flies up to cover his, and for a second, Renjun thinks Jeno might push him off again, but he doesn’t.

And they stand, arms on one another, neither of them moving, neither of them saying anything.

Jeno’s expression is clear  – hurt, more than anything. More than anger, more than disappointment.

“I want you,” Renjun tells him. “I have always wanted you.” Jeno’s lips twitch at the confession, “Since freshman year, since the day you sat next to me, since years before you asked me to be with you.” Barely a whisper, “I love you.”

Jeno mellows at the words, “Then why are you doing this?”

“I don’t know,” Renjun answers honestly. “I don’t know, but I don’t want to do it anymore. I – I just want things to go back to the way they were, I don’t want to think that I have to let you go anymore.”

“I love you,” Jeno says, nearly breathless. “Why won’t you believe me?”

Renjun nods, wishes Jeno would take him into a hug, “I believe you.” Jeno frowns, “I believe you, I swear – I know you love me.”

“Then – ” Jeno can’t comprehend, “What – ?”

“I’m – I was just scared.” Renjun doesn’t wait for Jeno to move; he throws his arms around Jeno’s neck, “I couldn’t stop the thoughts and I kept thinking – of a day when you’d leave me. I thought you’d find someone better, I thought you should.”

“I won’t,” Jeno crushes Renjun in the hug. “I won’t.”

“I didn’t want to tell you because I knew – I knew it’d hurt you, and I’m sorry I did.” Renjun breathes Jeno in, and the smell of coconut pushes him to go on, “I thought that if I didn’t say anything, it’d go away. Or if it didn’t go away,” he sighs, “I’d tell you after your season – you’ve been so busy, I didn’t want to – not when I thought this would all go away.”

“Please just,” Jeno presses his fingers into Renjun’s sides. “Talk to me, Jun. I – I’ll always have time for you, I’ll make time for you. I won’t – you can’t shut me out. Please don’t shut me out.”

“I was going to tell you, I swear – I’m sorry.”

“Then tell me how to make it better.”

Renjun has to think about it. “Give me time.”

“Jun – ” 

“I mean,” he unlatches himself from Jeno. He wipes at Jeno’s cheeks before his own, “Time with you.” Jeno nods, and Renjun takes it as an invitation to go on, “I just miss you. I can’t sleep when you’re not with me. It makes me think, and I try not to – but I can’t – ”

“I’m sorry,” is what Jeno says, it’s what Renjun expects. “I will. Tell me another.”

“Know that I’m sorry.”

“Renjun – ”

“That I never wanted to think like this, that I never wanted to let you go, that I didn’t know what I was thinking, what I was doing.”

Jeno yields, “I know.”

“I love you,” Renjun says under his breath. “Trust me, I love you.”

“I love you.” Jeno dares, “We’re okay?”

Even if we’re not, Renjun doesn’t lie, “We will be.”

 

x

 

They agree on many things later that night. Renjun takes Jeno to a nearby park, and they huddle on a bench to talk things out – everything. The important things (both their insecurities), the not-so-important things (what they’re doing to do to make it up to Donghyuck and Minhyung), future things, past things, present things.

Renjun takes the ring off the necklace around his neck. It’s cold out, making it difficult for him to, so Jeno helps, and their combined efforts have Renjun tucking the necklace into his coat pocket, ring between his thumb and forefinger.

“You know,” Jeno says slowly. “I – had other thoughts, when I was making you this ring.”

Renjun admires the engraving on the inner sides, “What were they?”

“That I wanted to be with you for a really long time.” Renjun notices not for the first time, from such a distance, how brown Jeno’s eyes are. Warmth. “I didn’t know how else to tell you.” Renjun waits for more, “I know you think I didn’t pick you – so I want you to know now that I have.”

Renjun bites on his lower lip to keep from trembling, “Jeno.”

“I am.” Jeno plucks the ring from Renjun’s hand, their fingers brushing. “I did,” Jeno slides it onto Renjun’s rings finger to match his, “I will always pick you. Even if you think I won’t, I will.”

Renjun stares at the ring on his left hand. He remembers when Jeno’d gotten chided at for having his ring on his left – the left ring finger’s usually left for engagement and wedding rings; bad luck is said to come to those who wear rings on the left before it’s truly their time to. Jeno’s mother had schooled them both about how there’s a belief that a vein in the ring finger ran directly to one’s heart – the vena amoris.

Jeno’s ring remains on his left.

Though, looking at it now, Renjun thinks that it might not be that much of a belief after all. He feels the ring set deep around his finger, snug around his heart. It feels right, and it feels closer to this heart than it did lying on his chest, feels like there’s an imaginary string attached from his to Jeno’s, to both their hearts.

“I’d pick you too,” Renjun says, even though he knows he doesn’t have to. “Over everyone, I’d pick you.”

Jeno brings Renjun’s hand up to press them to his lips, warming them up, “Pick me, forever.”

“I will,” Renjun promises. “I will.”

 

x

 

“Can you pass the salt please?”

“Fan, that’s the third time you’ve asked – ”

“ – that’s really not all that good for your body, you know?”

“Just hand it to him, Yan!”

“I’m only asking because these potatoes are tasteless, Xiang.”

“Well, you’re not entirely wrong – ”

“Tasteless? Tasteless? I spent hours slogging over the stove for dinner, Li Yufan, you’d better show some appreciation and – ”

Beside him, Jeno grin into his dinner, amused by the banter flying across the dining table, littered with Mandarin and crude insults that aren’t meant to be yelled across the heads of a pair of five-year-olds. Renjun reaches to fork Jeno a hunk of braised beef, “I think you’d like this.”

Under the table, Jeno squeezes Renjun’s hand. His ring gleams under the light, “Thank you.” He presses a sweet kiss to Renjun’s lips, grinning when Renjun smiles in return. “Love you.”

“Love you,” Renjun murmurs, stealing another kiss.

They’d agreed on many things after that night in the park.

Jeno’d promised to call more often if he were staying out late, and Renjun promised he wouldn’t feed himself terrible thoughts if he wanted to wait up. Renjun promised he wouldn’t hide, that he wouldn’t lie anymore, not if Jeno could help, not even if he thought it were for Jeno’s own good, and Jeno promised to listen, promised to be here. It’s a lot of promises, ones that are hard to keep, but they agree on it, and they agree – to never give up.

And Renjun knows he can do it.

Coincidence or fate, Jeno is here, and if Jeno says he’s never going to leave, Renjun believes it. And if he doesn’t believe it, Jeno’ll remind him.

For a long time,

forever.